Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

Senate seen as
bottleneck for LGBT bills


Representatives Tammy Baldwin and Jared Polis talked at last weekend's International Gay and Lesbian Leadership Conference about LGBT bills that are making their way through Congress. Photo: Rick Gerharter
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During a recent appearance at an LGBT leadership conference held in San Francisco, two of Congress' three openly gay members predicted the House of Representatives would pass a number of LGBT bills in the coming months but cautioned that the pro-gay rights measures could be waylaid in the Senate.

Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) and Congressman Jared Polis (D-Colorado) both held out hope that three key pieces of the country's LGBT rights agenda would be sent to the Senate by March. The two out lawmakers said they expect the House to pass a fully inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act in early January followed by votes to repeal the anti-gay "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" military policy and to extend full domestic partner benefits to the spouses of LGBT federal civilian employees.

"We are queued up to get" all three bills passed by the House by February, said Baldwin.

But during their remarks as part of a panel discussion December 5 before the International Gay and Lesbian Leadership Conference, they warned that passage by the Senate is not as assured.

"The Senate politics are different," said Baldwin. "I am hopeful we will still see those three pieces of legislation make it all the way."

Polis added, "I think we are moving in the right direction."

Unlike in the House, where it is possible to pass LGBT bills by a simple majority, doing so in the Senate is not likely because any one member can place a hold on a piece of legislation.

In order to schedule a vote, Senate leaders must find 60 votes to cut off threats of a filibuster or to end debate. As was done with the hate crimes bill earlier this year, Senate leaders supportive of gay rights prefer to find another bill they can attach LGBT legislation to in order to secure its passage.

"I haven't spoken to [Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada)] but he is looking through that 60-vote challenge. My sense is he is looking for bills he can attach things to," said Baldwin. "Senator Reid is committed to finding these vehicles to pass them through."

Myriad LGBT groups lashed out at congressional leaders last week after they postponed a hearing on ENDA that had been set to take place Thursday, December 3. Local organizations like the Transgender Law Center, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and Out and Equal Workplace Advocates joined with nearly two dozen groups to express their outrage that Congress has yet to pass the legislation, which a majority of Americans support and the president is eager to sign into law.

"There is absolutely no reason for Congress to continue to delay this non-controversial bill or drop LGBT issues to the bottom of their agenda. We will not be denied basic rights any longer," read the statement from the LGBT leaders. "Nothing is more important than protecting peoples' jobs so ENDA must pass now. Further delays are absolutely unacceptable."

In an interview with the Bay Area Reporter , Baldwin said she, too, was surprised to learn that the bill had been removed from the House committee's agenda. She said she spoke to House leaders and was assured that the move was done to fix problems brought up with the language in the legislation before it is put to a vote.

"Basically, they want to resolve the issues in the committee and not on the House floor," said Baldwin, who said she was told it would be taken up in January.

Noticeably absent from the list of the bills expected to be passed by the House was repeal of the federal D

On the eve of the International Gay and Lesbian Leadership Conference, several elected and appointed officials, including Signal Hill (Los Angeles County) City Council member Larry Forester, spent part of last Thursday volunteering at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church, where they helped serve lunch. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland
efense of Marriage Act and allowing LGBT Americans with foreign-born partners to sponsor them for U.S. citizenship. Both bills are unlikely to be brought forward next year when the entire House is up for re-election, as is one-third of the Senate.

So far the votes are not there to undo DOMA, and an immigration reform bill set to be taken up by a House committee early next year does not include any LGBT language. The out lawmakers did say they believe when the House does schedule a vote on immigration reform the final version of the bill will include the pro-gay provisions for LGBT binational couples.

"The gay issue is the least controversial part," said Polis. "The Catholic bishops are the biggest obstacle on it. They have more influence in our caucus than we thought."

President doesn't deserve all the blame

Since the summer frustration on the slow pace of progress in regards to LGBT rights has grown, and President Barack Obama has received the brunt of the criticism. Many LGBT advocates have accused him of not exerting enough pressure on lawmakers to act.

Polis and Baldwin both admitted they also have been frustrated at times by the delays but questioned how much blame should be placed on the president.

"I think he is absolutely committed to do his best to do everything he wants to do," said Polis. "Would I like to see LGBT issues more of a priority for him? Sure. But he needs a victory on health care so he is in a stronger position to push for our issues."

Polis, who was elected last November, said he believes more pressure needs to be applied not to those members of Congress supportive of LGBT bills but those on the fence or noncommittal but can be persuaded.

"We are not standing in the way," said Polis, pointing to himself and Baldwin. "The LGBT community should focus more on people we need to move over to our side and not focus our time on our friends."

Baldwin, having served in Congress the last decade and seen three different men occupy the White House, described the change in atmosphere in D.C. as going from being hostile toward the gay community to embracing LGBT rights and people. She said she believes too much of the community's attention has been on the president and not enough is being paid to Congress.

"I can't tell you how refreshing it is to have a debate over the intensity of support for LGBT rights by this president. We had a long drought leading up to this period," she said. "It is our role to be frustrated and impatient, that tension is very healthy. But it should be placed at our feet in Congress and the president's feet."

In terms of the repeal of the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military, Baldwin argued it is not something the president can remove on his own. Congress must first send him a bill he can then sign into law ending the anti-gay ban, said Baldwin.

"DADT is enshrined, unfortunately, in our federal law. Those obstacles need to be removed but it can't happen by our president waving a magic wand," said Baldwin. "That said, when he speaks out forcefully it does matter."

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